Apologies in advance for the lengthy post and quotes, but my goal was to provide a meaningful summary of the change-of-course for the Eleventh Circuit and scaling back the application of the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine.

The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, in general, is a “narrow jurisdictional doctrine” that “simply establishes that a party who loses a case in state court cannot appeal that loss in a federal district court.”  Behr v. Campbell, 2021 WL 3559339 (11th Cir. August 12, 2021) (click here for opinion or here for .pdf).

This is a straightforward enough rule, and the Supreme Court has held the line without hesitation for nearly a century. But the story has been different in the lower courts—our application of Rooker-Feldman has been unrestrained to say the least, sometimes leading to dismissal of any claim that even touches on a previous state court action. Though the Supreme Court has stepped in to restore the doctrine to its original boundaries, courts have continued to apply Rooker-Feldman as a one-size-fits-all preclusion doctrine for a vast array of claims relating to state court litigation.

In Behr, the Plaintiff and two of his children filed a 30-count pro se complaint, alleging tort, Constitutional and statutory counts against 18 defendants after “a series of child custody interventions and state proceedings.” The Plaintiff had lost custody of two of his four children and alleged in state court a conspiracy between his ex-wife, her partner and various state and school officials.  Two defendants removed the case to federal District Court because of the federal law claims in the complaint.

The second amended complaint rounds out at 75 pages and contains 30 counts. Those counts include allegations that the defendants violated the Behrs’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and federal law in a number of ways—fabricating reports, pressuring the children to make false statements against their father, entering Louis’s home without permission and on false pretenses, and discriminating against the Behrs on the basis of age, sex, disability, and religion. The Behrs also raise several state-law claims.

The District Court dismissed the case twice with leave to file and amended complaint, then seven days after the last Amended Complaint was filed the Court dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, it said, prevented it from reviewing the Behrs’ claims because they were “presented or adjudicated by a state court” or “ ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a state court judgment.” The district court concluded that the Behrs’ claims were, at bottom, “requesting the Court review the determinations by the state that caused two of [Louis’s] children to be removed from his custody and determine that it was the product of falsified reports.” It dismissed the entire complaint on that basis, with prejudice.

The Panel first discussed the expansion of Rooker-Feldman over time:

Case by case, over the course of several decades, our Circuit and others built Rooker-Feldman into a sweeping jurisdictional doctrine. We concluded that it was “broad enough” to bar federal courts’ consideration of “all federal claims which were, or should have been, central to the state court decision, even if those claims seek a form of relief that might not have been available from the state court.” Goodman ex rel. Goodman v. Sipos, 259 F.3d 1327, 1333 (11th Cir. 2001). This included not only those “claims presented or adjudicated by a state court,” but also claims that were “ ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a state court judgment,” effectively barring federal courts’ jurisdiction over all issues that seemed sufficiently related to an earlier state court case. Siegel v. LePore, 234 F.3d 1163, 1172 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Our inflated view of the doctrine, widely shared though it may have been, was actually a misunderstanding—one that the Supreme Court has stepped in to correct.

The Court’s decision in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp. restored Rooker-Feldman to its original boundaries. 544 U.S. 280, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 161 L.Ed.2d 454 (2005). The doctrine occupies “narrow ground” and is “confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name”—that is, Rooker and Feldman. Id. at 284, 125 S.Ct. 1517; Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). Those cases held that state court litigants do not have a right of appeal in the lower federal courts; they cannot come to federal district courts “complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. 1517.

As Exxon Mobil recognized, this rule follows naturally from the jurisdictional boundaries that Congress has set for the federal courts. First, federal district courts are courts of original jurisdiction—they generally cannot hear appeals…  And second, only the Supreme Court can “reverse or modify” state court judgments; neither district courts nor the circuits can touch them… Allowing federal district courts to alter or directly review the judgments of state courts would violate both of those jurisdictional grants… Only when a losing state court litigant calls on a district court to modify or “overturn an injurious state-court judgment”  should a claim be dismissed under Rooker-Feldman; district courts do not lose subject matter jurisdiction over a claim “simply because a party attempts to litigate in federal court
a matter previously litigated in state court.”  Nor is Rooker-Feldman “simply preclusion by another name.”   
[citations omitted in this paragraph for brevity].

The Panel then noted that it had previously scaled back the use of Rooker-Feldman –

Exxon Mobil exposed the flaws in our significant expansion of Rooker-Feldman, and this Court got the message. In Nicholson v. Shafe, one of our first cases addressing the doctrine after Exxon Mobil, we recognized that the Supreme Court’s opinion “clarified the scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine by returning it to its roots, the facts of the Rooker and Feldman cases.” 558 F.3d 1266, 1274 (11th Cir. 2009). In response, we abandoned the four-factor test that had previously guided this Circuit’s application of Rooker-Feldman. See id. at 1273–74. We chose instead to “adhere to the language in Exxon Mobil, delineating the boundaries of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.” Id. at 1274… Exxon Mobil was a much-needed corrective, and our holdings have since retreated to Rooker-Feldman’s narrow boundaries. We have rested on Feldman’s meaning: a “claim that at its heart challenges the state court decision itself—and not the statute or law which underlies that decision—falls within the doctrine because it ‘complains of injuries caused by state court judgments’ and ‘invites review and rejection of those judgments.’ ” May, 878 F.3d at 1005..

Unfortunately, litigants and the district courts have still not gotten the message. Parties keep arguing that district courts should dismiss claims as “inextricably intertwined” even when those claims do not seek “review and rejection” of a state court judgment, and district courts keep doing so… To whatever extent we have not been clear enough before,we aim to be now. Rooker-Feldman means that federal district courts cannot review or reject state court judgments  rendered before the district court litigation began.

The Circuit Panel then turned to the facts of the Behr’s Complaint:

On appeal, they have identified at least three federal claims that they believe should not have been dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine: their claims for violation of their procedural due process rights (Count 2), discrimination (Count 10), and an unreasonable search and seizure (Count 3)… The question isn’t whether the whole complaint seems to challenge a previous state court judgment, but whether resolution of each individual claim requires review and rejection of a state court judgment.

Plaintiffs were not trying to raise constitutional claims to reverse the state court’s child custody decisions – they were seeking damages for due process claims, including “restriction of access to the courts and denial of adequate legal counsel.”  Mr. Behr claimed several government entities discriminated against him because of his age by continually bringing up the age difference between him and his former spouse, and discriminated against the plaintiffs because of gender, religious beliefs and disability and certain state authorities conducted unlawful searches.  These claims fall outside Rooker-Feldman because they seek relief for what happened during the state court processes, not rejection of the state court judgment.

We reemphasize one point here: Rooker-Feldman will bar far fewer cases going forward, but this does not mean plaintiffs have free rein to relitigate in federal court any and all issues related to their state court proceedings. Other preclusion and abstention doctrines remain alive and well, and in “parallel litigation, a federal court may be bound to recognize the claim- and issue-preclusive effects of a state-court judgment.”

The Panel reversed the District as far as the federal claims subject to the appeal and remanded for further proceedings.

Scott Riddle’s practice focuses on bankruptcy and reorganization. Scott has represented businesses and other parties in Chapter 11 cases for almost 30 years.  You can contact Scott at 404-815-0164 or scott@scottriddlelaw.com.  For more information, click here.